No refuge: How benefit rules leave immigrant women at the mercy of their abusers
When Sarah met her husband in London four years ago, she couldn't have been happier. He was an old friend of her brother, knew of her difficult past and promised her a brighter future. He also assured her they would sort out her immigration status. She was an undocumented immigrant from Algeria, but he was a British citizen.
For a while they were happy, but then she became pregnant and everything changed. Her husband's behaviour became angry and controlling. Several months into her pregnancy he threw a hoover at her. After the birth of their son, things got worse. She wasn't allowed to speak to anyone other than her mother and sister. When she fell pregnant for a second time she was attacked again. This time she decided to leave, but was terrified her husband would find her and take her son away, as he had threatened to do many times.
Desperate to find somewhere to escape to, Sarah approached a number of refuges, but because of her immigration status she was turned away from every one.
This is not a lone case. Most women's refuges rely on the payment of housing benefit to cover the rent of any room offered to a victim of domestic violence. For those fleeing abuse who are not entitled to live in the UK – or who have a condition to their visa meaning they have no recourse to public funds – there is often no safe place for them to turn.
"I told Sarah to go to social services and explain her situation because I thought they'd be able to help," her sister, Meriem, says.
"Instead they told her the best thing to do was to leave her son in their care and for her to go back to Algeria. She was on the phone to me crying and screaming saying she couldn't leave her child.
"The only option was for her to come to my house in Manchester. Her husband knew my address, so she was scared he would try to snatch the baby but there was nowhere else to go. I have a disabled husband and three children myself, so we were all worried. I wanted my sister and my family to be safe but everyone we turned to told us they couldn't help."
One organisation which finally did help Sarah was Safety4Sisters, a small group of Manchester-based feminist and anti-racist activists who support women who have survived gender violence. One of the group's directors, Sandhya Sharma, says undocumented women who suffer domestic violence occupy one of the most marginalised positions in terms of public opinion, media coverage and community or state support.
"They are literally caught between multiple and intersecting structures of oppression – patriarchal family set ups and discriminatory immigration law," she says. "They are faced with punitive and draconian state practices and as a result have no safety net, no means to survive and are left vulnerable to further abuse."
In 2012, after a campaign led by women's charity Southall Black Sisters, the government launched what was supposed to be a long-term solution for women in this situation. The destitution domestic violence concession (DDV) provides immediate funding for temporary accommodation for anyone on a spousal visa who experiences abuse. They can then apply for indefinite leave to remain and will be granted leave for three months while the application is processed.
But this doesn't apply to those on student, work or visit visas – or those who are undocumented. Even those who can benefit from the DDV are often unaware of it or do not understand the rules. Many women have limited knowledge of the support available to them or how to access it. Some are dependent on abusive partners who intentionally misinform them and threaten them with deportation or losing custody of their children. This leads to many being fearful of any state intervention.
Southall Black Sisters
Yasmine left Iraq to join her British husband in the UK in 2014, but just two weeks after she arrived he began abusing her.
"He is a psychiatrist and would use mental and physical abuse," she says. "One day he assaulted me very badly. He was boxing me in the head and hitting me against the wall. I was bleeding. I managed to call my friend as it was happening so she could hear it, and thankfully she called the police. He was arrested and I was taken to hospital and referred to victim support."
Because she had a spousal visa she was rightly told she had 30 days to apply for indefinite leave to remain and that she would need to provide evidence of her abuse. But when she contacted the police and the hospital they both told her it would take 40 days to produce the evidence she needed. It was only when she sought the help of Safety4Sisters that she managed to get the documents she required before the deadline passed. They were also able to advise her of the implications of DDV and the financial support she was entitled to, as until then she had no idea that she was able to apply for housing benefit.
According to Women's Aid, the period when a woman is planning or making her exit from an abusive relationship is often the most dangerous, yet a report by the organisation in 2014 showed that 389 women with no recourse to public funds were turned away from refuges that year alone.
"Even if a woman has no recourse to public funds, she should always be able to access a refuge if she needs it," chief executive Polly Neate says. "Her economic status should not infringe on one of her basic human rights – to live a life free from violence and abuse. Refuges are actually forced to turn some women away due to their lack of recourse, despite knowing that that they are fleeing for their lives."